By Tara Sallaba
'I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,’ said Mesut Özil as he resigned from the German national football team, following accusations from the media and fans alike that his Turkish heritage contributed to Germany’s humiliating exit from the 2018 World Cup. With comments from the president of the German Football Association, Reinhard Grindel, that he contributed above all to the
team’s elimination, Özil added ‘I will no longer be playing for Germany at an international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect. I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t.’ Such sentiment illustrates the dichotomy that many in Germany’s Turkish diaspora face: an initial impulse to assume aspects of German identity which dissipates over time as a consequence
of structural and personal attacks on their background and nationality.
Despite his initial success being championed as a symbol of Germany's ‘multi-kulti’ project, Özil’s experience of racism and discrimination is commonplace. A recent study found that those of Turkish origin are 5% less likely to receive a callback for a job offer than other equally qualified candidates. Like many third-generation Turks, Özil’s grandfather came to the district of Bismark under the unique Gastarbeiter scheme beginning in the mid-1950s, and, despite being born and raised in Germany, his conflicted sentiments are emblematic of the country’s failure to live up to the ‘multi-kulti’ promise. Regardless of recent steps taken to appear more receptive to immigrants, the ongoing legacy of third-generation Turkish migrants acts as a cautionary tale. It was with Turkish immigrants in mind that former Chancellor Helmut Kohl rejected the concept dual citizenship in 1997, claiming that ‘if today we give in to demands for dual citizenship, we would soon have four, five, or six million Turks in Germany, instead of three million’. Such an explicitly exclusionary policy line from the country’s leading politician illustrates how pervasive notions of national separation and hierarchy are, throughout Germany.
Unsurprisingly, there exists a split within the 4 million-strong population of Germany’s Turkish diaspora minority – the largest in the country – regarding the question of national identity. Some, like Özil, born and raised in Germany with Turkish parents, have embraced ‘Germanness,’ most obviously through representing Germany nationally (although controversially not singing the national anthem when played). But others,
including many third-generation teenagers who have never even visited Turkey, feel a distinct lack of identification with Germany. Such distance is clear on both a domestic and European level. In
2017, tens of thousands of German-born Turks voted in Turkey’s referendum to extend Erdogan’s
powers to that of an executive presidency.
In the lead-up to the referendum, a biopic called Reis, meaning ‘chief,’ toured cinemas in Turkish
neighbourhoods in Europe, including Berlin, featuring soap opera star Reha Beyoğlu in the role of Erdoğan himself. Its screening was part of a strategy to provide German Turks with the impetus not only to vote, but to vote strongly in Erdoğan’s favour concerning values which are antithetical to everything it appears Germany and the West prize. This includes democracy and freedom of speech above all. Erdogan’s rhetoric has seen him cast the West as ‘racist,’ ‘imperialist,’ and ‘Islam hating,’ driven both by a desire to divert attention away from Turkey’s flailing economy and to boost his own suffering ratings. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also presented the West as plotters against Turkey’s economy, security and even identity. Against this background, after the film’s showing in Berlin’s Alhambra cinema, one of the viewers, Mehmet, was asked about his thoughts on the referendum. When the 20-yearold was questioned about the prospect of turning the country from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system, he responded, ‘to be honest, when America, Germany and France tell me to vote no in the referendum, then I am going to vote yes’. While Özil may have struck a balance between his dual identities, many of his contemporaries feel disenfranchised, and desire to assert their national identity in a way that could be viewed as threatening to German politics. How Germany has reached this point, as the country welcomes in more immigrants and refugees without a recognition of a need to solve pre-existing tensions, is clear.
The prejudice that the diaspora faces is at times extreme, finding its most shocking form in the Hanau shootings of February 2020, where eleven people were killed and five more wounded after a terrorist targeted two shisha bars known for their Turkish clientele. A working-class community just outside Frankfurt, Hanau’s ethnic diversity can be traced back to the Gastarbeiter policy implemented post-World War Two. The grandfather of one of the victims, 23-year-old Ferhat Unvar, came from Turkey as a Gastarbeiter himself, helping to pave the very streets where he was now laying a memorial.
The Gastarbeiter scheme, which saw Turkish labourers invited to the Federal Republic of Germany as it underwent an ‘economic miracle,’ was initially based on the belief that the labourers would eventually return home. However, as early as 1964, when policy changed to allow Turkish labourers to bring their families with them, it became increasingly clear that the Gastarbeiter scheme would have long-term effects. Consequently, visa restrictions for guest workers were relaxed further, and eventually full residency permits were granted. Instead of being part of a considered long-term policy, the gradual growth of Turkish communities in the 1960s and 1970s occurred due to a series of reactions to immediate economic circumstances, and as such was unaccompanied by the infrastructure to enable cultural integration, like language training, skills assessments and civic courses. As recently as 2020, a child was punished for speaking Turkish in the playgrounds at a school in Heidelberg, Germany. Whilst there was legal action taken against the teacher, that such a punishment was even considered appropriate illustrates how far acceptance of German Turks still has to come on a basic community level. As Maneula Bojadzijeva from the Institute of European Ethnology in Berlin points out, ‘there was always a clear understanding in Germany that the immigrant population should not be here at all, that migration isn't a constitutive part of German society’. As a result there is a grey zone; whilst second and third generations of German Turks are conflicted in terms of national identification, integration has occurred to a degree. Very few are calling for alienating these communities from German society altogether, but as with Özil, there are clearly tensions in Germany over the extent to which multiculturalism is deemed acceptable.
This has ramifications for Germany on a European level, as well as domestically. The lingering failure of the Gastarbeiter programme does not bode well for the generations of Syrian and now Ukrainian refugees welcomed to Germany more recently. Wolfgang Schaeuble, in his bid to be elected the CDU’s new leader last September, reiterated the far-right position that ‘Germany is not a land of immigration’. In 2017, Angela Merkel’s former interior minister Thomas de Maiziere published a ten-point plan outlining the ‘German values’ that migrants must accept, writing ‘We are an open society. We show our face. We are not burqa’. With this type of Islamophobia pervasive in mainstream media, it is no wonder that German immigrants have experienced growing alienation.
In Germany, there is a sense that integration is tantamount to assimilation. Whilst Özil may have proclaimed that ‘I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish’, this is hard to reconcile in real terms. A study by Yusuf Ikbal Oldac and Nigel Fancourt found that recent Turkish immigrants to Germany, part of the socalled ‘New Wave,’ felt that their opportunities to meet with and integrate into the wider German population were hampered by existing attitudes to the Turkish diaspora. Fatih, an engineering graduate from a prestigious German university, noted that ‘Wherever you go, you encounter the treatment like a second-class citizen. To be a firstclass citizen, you have to give up all your values and customs’. Another student explained that ‘to be honest, being a Turk here is a disadvantage … the reputation that Turks have in Germany is not very positive. Since they are known as workers, the attitudes of Germans to Turks are not very nice. When they learn that you are Turkish, they kind of take one step back’. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby continually poor treatment and stereotyping hampers the very assimilation many Germans desire. Fatih, when explaining why he planned to return to, commented that ‘I saw them look down on the others. And they do this to me when they first meet me as well’.
There is an irreconcilable divide, then, within Germany’s Turkish diaspora: those who seek integration and acceptance, and those who respond to the pressure of assimilation by seeking to recapture their family’s Turkish identity. More than a mere sociological quirk, the situation has wider implications. While it is easy for Germany to win favour on the international stage by accepting refugees, as it has done for the Syrians and Ukrainians fleeing conflict in recent times, the situation of the Turkish diaspora serves as a reminder that this alone is inadequate. If it a case of refugees serving as ‘more worthy’ of integration and policy support, this raises even more probing questions of German society. For if being a national star on the football pitch – an uncontroversial platform for mainstream adulation – is not enough to gain acceptance, it is difficult to find a model that is.
TARA SALLABA reads History at Teddy Hall, palms at parties and the leaves of green oolong tea.
Art by Cleo Scott